Welcome Back, Obama

Barack Obama made a triumphant return to the White House yesterday, his first time since leaving office in 2017. We don’t need to dwell on what happened immediately after he left in 2017.

Obama spoke at an event Tuesday commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Look at that packed house. Republicans are going to be such jerks about this, especially if anyone present tests positive for COVID-19.

The visit wasn’t strictly nostalgic. The White House wants to fix what’s known as the “family glitch,” a loophole that has prevented more than five million people from accessing subsidized health plans on the ACA marketplaces.

President Joe Biden can make the fix without Congress, so Senator Joe Manchin doesn’t have to sign a permission slip. Katie Keith, director of the Health Policy and the Law Initiative at Georgetown Law’s O’Neill Institute, said the fix is a “huge deal.” (This was a missed opportunity to reference Biden’s “big fucking deal” exclamation when the ACA was signed.)

Obama rightly held up the ACA as an example of government actually doing something constructive.

OBAMA: I know how discouraged people can get with Washington. But what the Affordable Care Act shows is that if you are driven by the core idea that together we can improve the lives of this generation and the next, and if you’re persistent, if you stay with it, you’re willing to work through the obstacles and the criticism, and continually improve where you fall short, you can make America better.

Democrats can indeed achieve great things if they (briefly) have a filibuster-proof Senate majority. That’s 90 percent of the job. The rest is negotiation. Poor Biden had to make do with a reduced-for-quick-sale congressional majority. The meat smells a bit off, but it’s better than nothing.

Just look at these two together again.

OBAMA: Despite great odds, Joe and I were determined [to pass the ACA] because we met too many people on the campaign trail who shared their stories, and our own families had been touched by illness.

This wasn't just a “Glory Days” speech. Obama delivered a statement of purpose. Democrats shouldn’t focus so much on keeping power that they achieve nothing of consequence in the meantime. After the 2010 GOP rout, then-Democratic Senator Evan Bayh claimed Obama and Democratic leaders had “overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession.” They should’ve fixed the previous Republican president’s mess, rather than try anything too bold. The centrist critics might change but the story remains the same.

Just 34 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the ACA in November 2011. That wasn’t good news for Obama’s re-election prospects the next year. Obama stressed Tuesday that he’d always intended "to get healthcare passed even if it cost me reelection, which looked for a while like it might.” Millions of Americans are alive today because Obama and Biden prioritized healthcare over their own political ambitions.

OBAMA: The ACA was an example of why you run for office in the first place. We are not supposed to do this just to occupy a seat or hang on to power. We are supposed to do this because it is making a difference in the lives of the people who sent us here.

Obama back at the White House reminded us of a more hopeful period for the nation. We didn’t realize yet that millions of Americans would lose their minds and start electing what Richard Pryor called "white folks that scare white folks.”

When Obama started speaking, he referred to Biden as “vice president.” That was a joke, of course. He hugged his former wingman and respectfully called him “my president, Joe Biden.” He’s certainly the first president Obama’s been able to respect since leaving office.

Obama also didn’t hold back from sharing the sparkling wit that lives on in YouTube talk show clips. He joked about wearing a tie again, even though he still looks as if he can fit into the same suits he wore in 2008. He even makes the gray hair work.

OBAMA: I heard some changes have been made by the current president since I was last here. Apparently Secret Service agents have to wear aviator glasses now. The Navy mess has been replaced by a Baskin Robbins. And there’s a cat running around. I guarantee you Bo and Sunny would have been very unhappy ...

History was also made, as the first Black president was in the White House at the same time as the first Black woman vice president. That’s more Black people than were ever featured in your average episode of the "West Wing.”

President Biden spoke for most of us when he somewhat wistfully told his former boss and forever friend, "Welcome back to the White House, man. It feels like the good old days.”

For a few moments there, it really did. We miss you, brother.

[Deadline / Time]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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